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January 9, 2012

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World's greatest journey begins

Standing on a seat in the waiting lounge at Shanghai Railway Station yesterday, a young man waved his arms as a mass of passengers moved slowly toward the platform entrance gate.

"Take care!" he shouted to a young woman in the crowd. Soon she disappeared from view.

The man, surnamed Bai, remained standing, trying to catch a final glimpse.

The station clocks stand at almost 11am. He knew that within the next few minutes the K516 train would be taking his girlfriend to her hometown in northern China's Jilin Province.

Bai said he, too, would soon be leaving Shanghai to return to his hometown, but in another part of the country.

Temporary separations like Bai's will be seen many times at the station and others across the country, after the Spring Festival rush began yesterday with millions of Chinese heading home to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year reunions, which this year falls on January 23.

A majority of rural migrants and many college students take the train as this is much cheaper than other transport services.

The homecoming is treasured as many go home to their families just once a year, while some can only return after several years away.

235m passengers

The country's traffic authorities estimate that a total of 3.16 billion passenger journeys, on all kinds of transport, are expected during the 40-day rush, known as chunyun in Chinese, this year.

China's railways alone will carry 235 million passengers during the period, according to the Ministry of Railways.

"I'm looking forward to seeing my sons soon," said Li Yuxing, a migrant worker from Shandong Province, at the Shanghai Railway Station yesterday.

A worker at a shipyard on Shanghai's Chongming Island, the proud father, smiling broadly, said his younger son would soon be graduating from university, the first to do so in his family.

"I think he'd like to talk with me about his future career plans," laughed Li, as he entered the station with his wife.

At the railway station in Xining, capital of western Qinghai Province, migrant worker Luo Lirong raised her head now and then to look at the boarding notification board.

"After a whole year of hard work away from home, I can finally go back home to see my child," Luo told Xinhua news agency about an hour ahead of her departure time. "I cannot pretend that I am not in a hurry."

Braving the early drizzle, more than 200,000 rail passengers were seen at the Shanghai Railway Station yesterday, starting out on their long journeys home for the Chinese Lunar New Year.

While most were able to start their trips smoothly, railway authorities said some had been turned back at ticket checkpoints despite continuous broadcasts about the real-name policy.

More than 137 people at the station were found with tickets that did not match their identification cards and 72 had forgotten to bring their ID cards with them. There were no reports of any foreigners falling foul of the rule, railway police said.

Under the policy, passengers have to produce their ID cards, passports or other forms of identification with their tickets at temporary checkpoints.

Friends' names

"Some people had asked friends to buy them tickets and their friends' names were on the tickets, not theirs," said a police officer.

Most passengers, however, passed through the checkpoints quickly and there were no reports of long queues yesterday. Ticket scalpers were noticeable by their absence.

Railway officers reminded passengers to get to stations early with the peak arriving ahead of the holiday. Tickets on the more popular routes, such as those to Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou, were almost sold out. The unlucky ones will have to pay more to take alternative modes of transport.

Li Minggao, a Sichuan native, said he plans to buy bus tickets after days spent lining up at rail ticket booths but having to leave empty-handed.

Flying to Thailand

A Beijing office worker said he has to fly to Thailand and then take a flight to his hometown in southwestern China's Kunming City as direct flight tickets had sold out, Xinhua reported.

Railway authorities admitted there was a gap between supply and demand but said extra services would be added to cater for as many passengers as possible.

Booking tickets online or by phone was being allowed this year, a method introduced with the aim of making it easier to get a ticket.

But the scheme has not proved as effective as had been thought. Many people complained that the website often crashed and the phone service was frequently unobtainable.

The new services also drew criticism from rural migrant workers and senior citizens who said they were excluded as they did not use the Internet and didn't have the online banking services needed to pay for the tickets.


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